A federal shutdown, the Super Bowl and the world’s busiest airport

For nearly two years, the world’s busiest airport has been preparing to play host to the world’s biggest football game.

It will be a test like no other for Hartsfield-Jackson, with more than 100,000 passengers expected to pass through security in a single, record-setting day. Officials thought they'd planned for most anything.

Turns out they were wrong. With just 11 days to go until the Super Bowl kicks off at Mercedes Benz Stadium, there is still no end in sight for a partial federal government shutdown that has left tens of thousands of airport screeners working without pay. Officials worry the ongoing impasse could leave the airport at risk of a debacle just when the national spotlight is shining on Atlanta.

"We are paying a lot of attention to the political situation that we have no control over," Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport general manager John Selden said during a talk to an industry group last week. "It is very scary to us."

A Breaking Point?

Already the Atlanta airport has shown signs of strain.

There was a two-hour long security waits one day last week after Transportation Security Administration officers missed their first paycheck. Lines abated after the TSA brought more officers from other locations.

"This is a pretty resilient staff," said Mary Leftridge Byrd, TSA's federal security director in Atlanta, who has been meeting with the NFL, Super Bowl host committee, the city of Atlanta, the Atlanta Police Department, the FBI and others to prepare.

But already TSA agents are calling out sick. And if the federal shutdown continues through the Super Bowl, TSA officers, Customs officers and air traffic controllers will have missed two paychecks — an entire month's worth of pay. TSA acknowledges that "many employees are reporting that they are not able to work due to financial limitations."

"There's no gauge as to where someone's breaking point's at. So is it one paycheck? Is it two paychecks? Is it four paychecks?" said National Air Traffic Controllers Association representative Dan McCabe on CNN on Monday. "My biggest fear is that as people reach their breaking point, they'll begin to quit," exacerbating staffing problems.

A gridiron is on the floor in the terminal atrium at Hartsfield-Jackson.  Officials say the Super Bowl will mean a 30 percent spike in traffic at Hartsfield Jackson-International Airport, up from the 2,500 flights a day it usually handles.. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

icon to expand image

Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson raised the prospect on CNN that "as this starts to crumble and unravel, we're going to see mass flight cancellations, we're going to see a system that completely unravels and falls apart. We will not have private jets taking off to get people to the Super Bowl. No one will be able to get to Atlanta. This is going to have a massive economic impact."

And even if the shutdown ends before the game, some are worried about the effects of attrition in the TSA and FAA workforce on lines — and on aviation security.

More Flights; More People

Delta, Southwest and JetBlue have all added flights to Atlanta for the game. As people stream into the city next week, airport roads could become congested with lines of cars and long waits for Uber, Lyft and other rides.

That will be a build-up to the unprecedented 110,000-115,000 passengers expected at security checkpoints at Hartsfield-Jackson on the Monday after the Super Bowl — being dubbed Mass Exodus Monday.

To handle the onslaught, officials are taking a number of unusual steps to scale up the airport’s capacity to far exceed the previous record of 93,082 departing passengers in a single day.

TSA is bringing 120 officers into Atlanta to handle the volume, according to Selden. The agency said it will “operate checkpoints to their fullest operational capacity while maintaining security standards.”

The airport will also use a checkpoint at the international terminal. For passengers of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines — which has check-in counters at both domestic and international terminals — a checkpoint normally used to re-check incoming international passengers connecting to domestic flights after going through Customs will be repurposed as a regular security checkpoint.

That will add a fifth checkpoint to process departing passengers from Hartsfield-Jackson.

Airport officials are expecting that thousands of travelers will head straight to the airport after the game and spend the night in the terminal until their flights the next day.

Delta plans to hand out blankets and amenity kits to passengers who bed down in the airport. Travelers will also be able to pass through security up to 24 hours before their flights.

Hartsfield-Jackson is advising travelers flying out Monday to allow five hours to check out of hotels, get to the airport, check bags and go through security.

Passengers cross a football field in the Atlanta airport atrium, Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

icon to expand image

That day, checkpoints will be open 24 hours and there will be eateries and newsstands open round-the-clock on every concourse, the airport says.

The push to come up with other contingency plans has become more urgent as the federal shutdown persists.

Among the biggest risks: a large share of TSA workers calling in sick. It's a concern U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., raised on the Senate floor last week.

“What if the largest airport in the world, that’s going to bring people to the largest football game in the world, goes out of business because the TSA strikes?” Isakson said.

If TSA must close a checkpoint as part of a contingency plan, the agency said it “will manage available officers, canines and other assets with total systemic security in mind.”

Other worries include the possibility of a massive backup of passengers overflowing from the terminal. Officials have also long worried about the security risk of having a huge volume of people who have not gone through security gathered in one public place.

“I think the exodus could possibly be a very difficult day,” Selden said.

Hartsfield-Jackson expects a record-setting 110,000 passengers going through security on the Monday after the Super Bowl. That's more than 18 percent higher than the previous record of 93,082 passengers at Atlanta airport checkpoints on the Friday before Memorial Day 2018.

The airport is recommending a 5-4-3-2-1 rule for travelers leaving Atlanta after the Super Bowl:

  • Check out of your hotel 5 hours before departure
  • Turn in your rental car or call Uber or Lyft 4 hours before departure
  • Check bags 3 hours before departure
  • Get in line for security 2 hours before departure
  • Be at your gate 1 hour before departure

The airport is also advising travelers not to pack their Super Bowl programs in checked luggage. That’s because it’s made of materials that will trigger machines that screen bags. Instead, when going through the TSA checkpoint, take the program out of your carry-on bag and put it in a separate bin.

Source: Hartsfield-Jackson

Hartsfield-Jackson by the numbers

  • The Atlanta airport regularly handles 270,000 passengers a day, including connecting passengers. That's four times the capacity of Mercedes-Benz stadium.
  • An additional 125,000 passengers are expected leading up to the Super Bowl.
  • TSA expects to have additional officers, 2,500 overtime hours and 12 more K9 teams for Super Bowl traffic. The airport will also have additional contract security.
  • More than 1,800 volunteers will help passengers navigate the airport.

Source: Hartsfield-Jackson